Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed December 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Frances K. Goldscheider

Men, Children and the Future of the Family in the Third Millennium
By Frances K. Goldscheider
Frances K. Goldscheider is a professor of sociology at Brown University. This commentary is excerpted from a longer article by Goldscheider that will be published by the Foundation for the Future.

"In a society otherwise highly based on choice, our current obsession with tracking men down and punishing them for fathering a child with high support judgments feels much like the punishment 'wayward' women were treated to when they bore an illegitimate child"

The foundations of the family linking men, women and children have shifted in revolutionary fashion over the past quarter century, but much rebalancing is needed before the gender revolution is complete because men are getting shortchanged.

The evidence that women's greater responsibility for family-related tasks retards their progress toward equality in the workplace is widespread and increasingly well understood. Nevertheless, current practices are also unfair to men, at least to men who want to achieve parity in parental rights and responsibilities with the mothers of their children. Men have a greater responsibility to provide support than either co-resident or non-co-resident mothers, and, in cases of divorce, have less opportunity to spend time with their children because they are rarely awarded custody and have almost no resource when court-ordered "visitation" is not forthcoming. Custodial fathers are less likely to receive child support or, when they do receive an award, it is smaller than a similarly-situated woman would receive.

Yet the costs to women who deny the fathers' access to their children are weak to nonexistent. Women are rarely prosecuted for visitation violations or, when they are, they incur at most a small fine.

The fundamental unfairness, however, is rooted in women's control over pregnancy. Women, but not men, can decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term, making a decision about whether to become mothers and hence whether their partners should become fathers. To a great extent, women also have the power to determine whether, when and often how to identify the father of their child.

In the early 1970s, a woman's rights about childbirth and childrearing were easy priorities to defend. Divorce was relatively rare, and most children lived with both biological parents. So many men earned so much more than women did, and so few men supported children out of wedlock, that the problems created for men seemed small relative to the great freedom the right to abort gave women.

As we approach the third millennium, however, the assumptions made in the early 1970s appear increasingly irrelevant. The gender earnings gap has closed substantially, both because women have more opportunities to build a career and because men's wages have declined substantially, particularly men who did not attend college. Further, with the development of DNA testing and the Child Support Act of 1988, the possibility of evading financial responsibility for children has been increasingly foreclosed. Substantial proportions of men find themselves forced to become fathers and assume substantial financial responsibility for the children. The Nov. 23 Washington Post, for instance, reported on a lawsuit in which a man is suing a woman for becoming pregnant against his will. She had promised to take birth control pills, he says. The woman claims she became pregnant accidentally. That factual issue may be settled at trial, but clearly, for the father, this was not a "wanted child."

"Every child a wanted child," say supporters of legal abortions, recognizing that if women are to have public lives outside the family, they need to be able to control when they become parents.

Men deserve the same right. A recent study of reasons noncustodial fathers give for not paying child support indicated that 25 percent either were not the father or did not want the child to be born. An additional 23 percent indicated that they had the responsibilities of a parent, but no rights: They were not allowed to visit, much less have input into the decisions that parents are normally called upon to make vis-à-vis their children.

It seems clear that gender equality will have to be achieved in the family. This means that men will have the same right to decide whether to assume the rights and responsibilities of fatherhood that women have and that they have equal rights to custody. It also means that the rights and obligations of both parents to support and care for their children will be enforced with equal stringency.

For such equality to be achieved, however, men need the right to a "financial abortion" - to be notified by the mother as soon as she knows about the child's existence, and to decide reasonably quickly whether they want to undertake the legal rights and responsibilities of parenthood - or not. Women who do not notify the father of their child should face penalties - perhaps for violating his civil rights. Likely there would be chaos for a while, but in a society otherwise highly based on choice, our current obsession with tracking men down and punishing them for fathering a child with high support judgments feels much like the punishment "wayward" women were treated to when they bore an illegitimate child.